Visual Art / Literary Art
Creative Bestiary Entry
Real and Imagined Animals in Medieval Literature (YHU2330)


The sirens are part human, part bird and part fish. When they tried to fly, their tails weighed them down. When they tried to swim, their wings got in the way. Hence, they are condemned to an eternity of sitting on the rocks in the middle of the sea. Their sorrowful songs promise greedy sailors of bountiful treasure, drawing them closer, becoming prey.
Artist’s Remarks

I chose a siren as the subject of my bestiary entry, with the slight modification of adding wings to this figure. According to some early records, the siren was originally half human and half bird, before it shifted to become more similar to what we know as the mermaid: half human and half fish. In the literature of classical Antiquity, sirens were portrayed as cruel devils, singing songs that lured in humans passing by before devouring them. In the spirit of the bestiaries, where animals are provided a more humanistic quality even if they are human-eating monsters, I have decided to provide a reason why they had to lure their food closer – that they are, in fact, helpless and bound to specific locations in the sea.

With this revised characterisation in mind, the original transcript that I had drafted was this:

“The siren is part human, part bird, and part fish. They are human above their abdomens, and fish from the waist down, with wings extending from their necks. When they try to fly, their tails weigh them down as they flap hopelessly in the air. When they try to swim, their wings get in the way, so they are too slow to catch any prey. Hence, they are condemned to sit on rocks their whole life, weeping when there are no humans around and singing when they see a ship pass by. Their songs, filled with sadness, draw in unassuming humans with the promise of treasure that they can’t reach. And thus, the tempted humans are never seen again. The story of sirens shows that those who fail to maintain a strong resolve will be exploited by the devious.”

However, as I was transcribing this onto the illumination in an attempt to imitate the hand used in the bestiary manuscripts, I had to shorten the text significantly.

I decided on the medium of acrylic on canvas for this project due to the increased versatility of colors that I could use for the illumination, inspired by the more colorful illuminations looked at in class. The background of the canvas was first painted light brown with blotches of darker brown to emulate the color of old manuscripts. As precious metals such as gold were often used in medieval illuminations, I decided to use gold to line the borders of the illumination too. In addition, I decided to depict a lone siren weeping, with the intention of drawing more sympathy towards the siren’s unfortunate plight of being stuck in the middle of the ocean, with few options for mobility.